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Sheldon Silver 'deeply regrets' handling of Vito Lopez case

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, left, walks with Assemblyman

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, left, walks with Assemblyman Vito Lopez, to an affordable housing news conference at the Capitol in Albany. (April 18, 2012) Credit: AP

ALBANY -- Amid intense criticism over his handling of sexual-harassment complaints against former Assemb. Vito Lopez, a visibly shaken Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver apologized at length Monday for his actions, saying it was a "glaring" failure.

Silver (D-Manhattan) also said he would implement a new system for dealing with such complaints, ensuring they are handled by an independent investigator. Such complaints will "never" be handled by a speaker or his counsel again, he said.

Silver, repeatedly using phrases such as "deeply regret" and "deeply sorry," lamented not originally sending complaints leveled against Lopez, a Brooklyn Democrat, to an ethics panel for investigation. Instead, Silver signed a confidential agreement to settle complaints by two former staffers -- which later sparked criminal and civil investigations that revealed sordid details about Lopez' harassment of other former employees.

Though those inquiries cleared Silver of any illegality, a special prosecutor accused him of trying to shield the Assembly instead of protecting victims and said the secret settlement might have encouraged Lopez to harass other staffers.

Silver also has been criticized by women's organizations, media editorial boards and government watchdogs. While Silver previously acknowledged erring, his comments Monday were his most extensive about his role in the matter.

Reading from prepared remarks and speaking haltingly, Silver, who said he never considered resigning his post, said responsibility for what he called mistakes "rests solely on me."

"That I allowed the system to be bypassed, even though I believed we were acting in good faith, was a failure on my part," he said. "For this I am deeply sorry."

The investigations outlined how Lopez (D-Brooklyn), once one of the Assembly's most powerful members, routinely groped and harassed young female staffers. He told them to wear high heels and no bra, pressured them to massage his hands and go on trips and stay in hotel rooms with him overnight.

Though a criminal prosecutor found no "chargeable crime," a civil investigation determined Lopez violated the state's Public Officers Law and handed the matter to the Assembly for discipline. Matters moved quickly after that.

Silver introduced a resolution to expel Lopez on Thursday. Faced with being the first Assembly member removed since 1920, Lopez on Saturday resigned, effective Monday. Officials took Lopez' nameplate from his desk in the Assembly chamber early Monday.

Silver, surrounded by dozens of fellow Democrats at a news conference, said the "degradation and emotional distress" endured by the women involved in the case "weighs heavily on me." He added: "Now that we know the atrociousness of the misconduct, it only makes the failure more glaring."

Asked whether he considered resigning, Silver paused, looked down, collected himself and answered: "I did not give any thought to resigning."

He then talked about his 37-year career in the Assembly, 19 as speaker, noting the "great successes" such as legalizing same-sex marriage, extending rent-control laws and banning assault weapons.

Earlier a backbench Democrat called on Silver to step down. Assemb. Michael P. Kearns (D-Buffalo) said Silver's handling of the case warranted his resignation. The state GOP chairman and a group of female Republican legislators have made the same demand.

But by and large, Democrats have rallied around Silver.

"I don't," Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Monday when asked if Silver should leave.

Before the news conference, Silver huddled behind closed doors for over an hour with the more than 100 Assembly Democrats. Afterward, rank-and-file members said they were pleased with the "very frank" discussion.

"People bared their souls," said Assemb. Amy Paulin (D-Scarsdale), who has previously publicly disclosed she was sexually assaulted as a teenage volunteer on a political campaign. "There were a lot of questions and a lot of good answers, I have to say.""He was very candid about how this all happened," said Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst). "He admitted he could have done it better and people respected the fact that he acknowledged that."

A number of Democrats said Kearns was an outlier and that Silver generated tremendous loyalty over the years for leading them through big and small political battles.

"They support him because they believe they've done well" under Silver's leadership, said Assemb. Joe Lentol (D-Brooklyn), one of the speaker's strongest allies.

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